WASHINGTON — After weeks of criticism for his detached response, President Barack Obama is showing new resolve to respond to a growing crisis over veterans' health care.
Obama called Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to a White House meeting and then repeatedly vowed to take action during a 20-minute appearance Wednesday in the White House briefing room. Obama also dispatched a senior aide, Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, to Phoenix to meet with staff at the hospital that is at the center of allegations of treatment delays and falsified reports at VA medical facilities.
Obama had remained publicly silent on the veterans issue for three weeks, even as he assigned Nabors to oversee a review of VA health care and sent Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to Capitol Hill to reassure anxious lawmakers.
The inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department says 26 VA facilities are being investigated nationwide, including the Phoenix hospital. That facility faces allegations that 40 people died while waiting for treatment and that staff kept a secret list of patients in order to hide delays in care.
The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the administration's management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama's comments Wednesday signaled a renewed commitment by the White House to rein in a deepening political problem in a midterm election year.
Addressing his remarks to veterans, Obama said, "We are going to fix whatever is wrong, and so long as I have the privilege of serving as commander in chief, I'm going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that you and your families deserve, now and for decades to come."
However heartfelt, the comments did little to quell criticism of both the VA troubles and the president's own handling of the matter.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said Obama's decision to wait for results of a series of investigations before acting showed he is out of touch. The remarks "ignore over five years' worth of investigations" by the inspector general and by other agencies, said Burr, the senior Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., called the VA allegations "a national embarrassment" and said "the president's response to it is an embarrassment." The administration's tepid response to the VA crisis stands in stark contrast to its actions following a website fiasco during the rollout of the new health care law, Thune said.
"The president spent hundreds of millions of dollars, called for all hands on the deck" on health care, Thune said. "And yet for something as important as the way that we care for our veterans, the president sends one person down there" to Phoenix.
Even some Democrats joined in the criticism. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., said he was "very disappointed" with Obama's remarks.
"There was no urgency," said Scott, one of two Democrats who have called for Shinseki to resign. "Mr. President, we need urgency."
Scott's comments came as the House approved a bill that would give the VA secretary more power to discipline the 450 career employees who serve as hospital directors or executives in the agency's 21 regions.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said VA officials who have presided over mismanagement or negligence are more likely to receive bonuses or glowing performance reviews than any sort of punishment.
"Gen. Shinseki is a good man" who wants to do the right thing, Miller said of the former Army four-star general, "but he is being held back by a failed civil service."
The House approved the bill 390-33, sending it to the Senate. The White House said it supported the goal of seeking greater accountability at the VA but had unspecified concerns about the legislation.
Nabors, who also took part in the Oval Office meeting with Shinseki, is to meet Thursday with staff at the Phoenix VA hospital.
The current director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, Sharon Helman, has been placed on leave while the VA's inspector general investigates claims raised by several former VA employees.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this story. Follow Matthew Daly at http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC
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